The Art of Making Great Recordings – Part II

Pre-production in the Digital Age

As I mentioned in the last issue, pre-production is key to getting consistently great recordings. Like cooking a great meal, you can have all the right ingredients, but without appropriate preparation the end result can fall disappointingly short. Even worse, many musicians’ creations never reach the point of consumption, ending up as part of an ever-growing catalog of abandoned recordings. In more extreme cases, songwriters end up with more incomplete recordings than final mixes, creating a psychological burden that can suck the joy right out of the creative process. Wondering if a song is going to end up in the incomplete bin is never the headspace you want to be in when you start recording. The goal of this column is to provide some great tools for maximizing the success of your recording projects.

PROCESS

Many “creatives” excel at building process into other areas of their life, but choose not to do so when it comes to making music. One of the main reasons this happens is that creatives tend to use their emotions as a musical thermometer, and until things feel a certain way, the job is not done. The danger of this approach is that we can easily linger too long at each stage of the creative process. Noting that recording is not all fun and games, by the time we actually start recording a song, we can easily get distracted by the next musical idea to come along. The end result is that once again we’ve added more material to the incomplete bin.

In this column we’ll cover specific tools for capturing inspiration when it strikes, a strategy for determining the keepers, as well as tips for rehearsing songs to life prior to taking them into the studio. By looking at how you use your time at each phase of the pre-production process, it becomes much easier to see where you tend to get stuck so you can act accordingly.

CAPTURE THAT MOMENT

Many, if not most songs are about capturing the essence of a feeling, reaction, or revelation at a very specific moment in time. Not capturing a truly inspired moment can turn into a painful process of hide and seek as we try to recreate the magic of a moment passed. Long before he was known for performing his million selling songs, Michael Bolton made his living writing them for other artists. In an interview in the mid-eighties Michael mentioned that he never left the house without a mini cassette recorder.

While you may not aspire to sound like Michael Bolton, the fact that he’s sold over 75 million records is a good indicator that he knows a thing or two about capturing an inspired moment when it strikes.

The Voice Memo app on my iPhone is the modern equivalent of the mini cassette recorder Bolton used back in the day.

Buried amongst the hundreds of voice memos I’ve recorded are dozens of songs that died a timely death, undeserving of further development.

OWNING THE MOMENT

One of the key advantages of using my emotions as my musical thermometer is that when I come back to a good idea, I know it right away. That said, when the creative juices are flowing is one of the times I give myself permission to linger. If I’m really feeling a section that I’ve written, the best time for me to start adding additional pieces is while I’m still in that creative space. Rather than focusing on nailing an exact arrangement, I generally use this time to come up with the distinct parts that will make up the final arrangement. The Voice Memo app is a perfect tool for capturing those musical doodles. Once I’ve got the various parts recorded I like to give them a listen. It still surprises me how different things sound and feel once I stop playing. Because I’m still in the moment, this is a great time to go back in and make inspired tweaks if need be.

CRAFTING AN ARRANGEMENT

Coming back to a Voice Memo after the fact can be a sobering experience, but it can also be the fuel that reignites the creative fire. Once I’ve determined that an idea is truly worth pursuing, crafting an arrangement becomes my next focus. This is where the investment I made in coming up with all the parts while the creative juices were flowing really starts to pay off. Arranging is like painting a house. It is generally not a good idea to start painting before you’ve finished pouring the foundation. For me, these are two distinct phases for which I use two distinct approaches. Using my painting analogy, arranging is like finding the perfect balance of how much color and where. I personally find it very frustrating to try and create a final arrangement while I’m still trying to fill in missing parts. Again, by having given myself permission to live in the creative zone when I was coming up with the parts, once I get to arranging I can start thinking versus feeling my way through this particular part of the pre-production process. While this is not a one size fits all thing, you might try giving this strategy a whirl if you’re feeling that your current approach is falling a bit short. Regardless of how you get there, before you take a song to your worship team or band to rehearse, I’d suggest making a recording of the actual arrangement. Having time to live with your arrangement will be a huge help when it comes time to workshop the song with your team or band.

Arranging is like painting a house. It is generally not a good idea to start painting before you’ve finished pouring the foundation.

REHEARSAL ASSETS

When Classical musicians are first asked to improvise, they often freeze. Music as they’ve known it has always been written note for note on a page for them to reinterpret. When presented with an original composition, many Worship musicians face a similar challenge. The good news is that if you approach showing your team or band your song in much the same fashion they learn other songs, you’ll be setting everyone up for success.

SHARE YOUR ARRANGEMENT

The great thing about Voice Memos is that you can easily share them directly from the app. Giving your team/bandmates some time to live with your song is a great way to get them invested in the process. It’ll also give them a chance to craft some parts of their own before rehearsal.

WRITE + SHARE A CHORD CHART

If possible, also give them a chord chart to work with. If you’re don’t feel ready for the task, try reaching out to a keyboardist for help. Planning Center is a great vehicle for sharing these kinds of assets, while eMail is arguably better for gathering feedback.

THE REHEARSAL

Be sure to share your vision for the song. The more you let the musicians know what a song means to you and how you feel it will move your audience or congregation, the closer they’ll be to realizing it. It is also a good idea to give them an idea of what your goals are for the rehearsal, as well as what you are looking for from each player. I’d also suggest taking a moment to play the arrangement for them before you start rehearsing. Chances are that in the busyness of life, someone there might not have had a chance to listen to the version you shared.

A DYNAMICS CHART

In addition to having extra copies of the chart you already shared, I’d also suggest creating a dynamics chart to get everyone on the same page in terms of the song’s dynamics. The below chart features the names of the sections as well a number from one to ten, representing the dynamic intensity for that section. This kind of chart is easy to write and even easier to read…

Intro             8
Verse 1         4
Pre-Chorus    5
Chorus 1       6
Verse 2         5
Pre-Chorus    6
Chorus 2       7
Bridge A       5
Bridge B       7
Chorus 3      8
Outro           9

LOOPING SECTIONS

If you wrote a song for your Church’s Worship team, remember that many services have a time where the speaker will talk as the band loops a section. Noting that this is something your musicians are most likely used to doing this in a service, getting them to loop each section of your arrangement is a great way to bring your song to life. Don’t leave a section until it feels right.

RINSE AND REPEAT

Once the band can make it through the song from start to finish, pull out your iPhone and record a Voice Memo so everyone can hear how they sound together. Talk about what worked and what didn’t, and if time permits record another take with the appropriate fixes.

LIVE WITH IT

The final Voice Memo from these pre-production sessions gives you the ability to make a number of critical decisions about your song in terms of the key, tempo, arrangement, and dynamics. Living with these recordings is key to deciding whether you are ready to start the multi-track recording process.

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Doug Doppler Doug is a worship leader + former Guitar Hero session player, Favored Nations recording artist spends his time demoing the coolest gear.

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